Solidarity in Poland - Solidarność


In the People's Republic of Poland (which was the official name of Poland from 1952 to 1989), resistance against communism and the country's bad social and economic circumstances rose from June 1976 onwards.

One year before, after a brief Polish boom period, policies of the Polish government (led by Edward Gierek), slid into depressions, as (foreign) debts mounted. The government reacted and increased the prices of many basic commodities (meat by 70 % and sugar by 100 %).

This increase led to fierce protests in June 1976. The largest demonstrations took place in factories in Płock, Radom and particularly in Ursus. The protests were brutally subdued by the government, however the planned increase was shelved - the government kept the prices frozen, due to its fear of a repeat of the workers' strikes.
In the aftermath a democracy movement all over Poland developed, resistance to the regime grew (trade unions, clandestine newspapers, imported books, music and newspapers, student groups and a group of intellectuals in Poland founded the opposition organization Workers' Defence Committee Komitet Obrony Robotników (later: Committee for Social Self-Defence) whose aim was to fight official repression of the protesting workers).

The government tried to calm down the situation. During that time of propaganda, first secretary Gierek tried to buy off dissatisfied workers and kept the Soviet Union convinced that Poland was a loyal ally. The Soviet would not allow any fundamental economic reform that would endanger the "socialist system", which is especially relevant due to Polands geographic position between the Soviet Union and Germany.

A few years later (in 1980) the economic situation got worse, the government became increasingly unable to borrow money from abroad, and in the end the price increase seemed to be unavoidable. In July first strikes took place in Świdnik and Lublin. The demonstrations quickly spread all over Poland. In 1981 the government introduced martial law (Stan wojenny w Polsce - State of war in Poland) in order to crush political opposition. Pro-democracy movements were banned, all indpependet organisations were delegalized, the national boarders and airports were closed, activists were interned and more than 100 people were killed. The law was lifted in 1983, however many political prisoners remained in prison.

The strongest enemy to the official regime was the social movement "Solidarność" (Solidarity), which emerged (in August 1980) in connection with this civil resistance. It was an independent trade union federation, in fact the first non-communist party-controlled trade union behind the iron curtain, led by Lech Wałęsa, which made the country a forerunner for deomcratic structures among the Warsaw Pact countries.
L. Walesa
S. Zywolewski: L. Walesa, 1991, Oil on board
It is not easy to answer where Solidarity had its origin. It grew out of the "pyramid of opposition" (Aleksander Smolar). Solidarity united people from various backgrounds and different generations (religious representatives, former communists, socialists, students, intellectuals from all fields etc.) 
Wałęsa, like many other Solidarity leaders and activists, was arrested. From 1987 to 1990, he organized the "semi-illegal" Provisional Executive Committee of the Solidarity Trade Union.
He said "Solidarity will not be divided or destroyed". 
After months of strikes, the government agreed to enter into Round Table Negotiations. At the end, the government signed an agreement to re-establish the Solidarity Trade Union. In 1989 Poland had a non-Communist government, in fact the first nin-Communist government in the Soviet Bloc.
Of course, this description is a bit simplistic. In reality, the union was not as harmonic and strong as it is described most of the times. Cutting short the historical events turns them into a myth. In fact, there were many disputes among the Solidarity movement (something which is all to clear considering that the movement consisted of so many different people). Albeit, the size of the movement (including active and passive oppositional groups) made clear that change had to come.

On 9 December 1990, Wałęsa became president of the new, democratic state and remains a glorified figur,. An example is the painting above. Zywolewski painted Wałęsa as a saint. He used the traditional shape of religious icons: the saint in the middle with a halo and framed by episodes of his life (his imprisonment shown as martydrom).

Art and Design

Social and political resistance usually make use of visual signs or expressions. A logo or a (visual) symbol serves various purposes. It conveys and expresses a certain message, it creates a feeling of identification, it has a high recognition value, creates a community and (in most of the cases) it appears everywhere in a city: The more a symbol is visible in public, the more powerful does a movement appear.

Solidarność was supported by visual artists, musicians and intellectuals. The movement's logo is a design by Jerzy Janiszewski. It is one of the most recognizable characters associated with the struggle for democracy, and maybe one of the most famous symbols in an East-European context. According to the artist, the letters were designed to represent united individuals. The colour red is a typically signal colour, which includes many associations.  Since then it has become a famous trademark. Until the present day the logo has an extremely high importance for the Polish democracy and history, and evokes a high degree of emotional response among the Polish population. It has "entered the national Pantheon of memories of a heroic past. In other words, for most Poles the union moved from the sphere of profanum to the national and religious sacrum." (Aleksander Smolar) 

This change has some effects on the famous logo. Its importance inveigles to an inappropriate use. Its excessive and unjustified use in the past meant a devaluation. Polish artists critically commented this decline in their works. The research group "Re-Designing the East" focused on that topic and organised several exhibition. 
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Soon after the imposition of martial law, several underground institutions came into being. Most of them were strongly connected to Solidarity but stayed independent of it. A hand full of independent organisations formed, mainly founded by teachers, artists and academics. Their aim was to support research, culture and art production and supported young academics and artists financially. Four of these institutions have created a common coordinating group: OKNO (window).
Many visual artists formed artist groups. The members used to work individually and in most of the cases continued to work indivually after 1990. Yet, during that time working in a group seemed to be more effective and maybe more safe.

Artist group Konger

The artists group Konger established in 1983 in protest against the Martial Law in Poland. Its main aim was the boycott of all state galleries and museums. Instead they organised performaces. This was a common approach in that time. Actors and directors boycotted the state television, and writers and journalist did the same with the state press. The boycott of these visible professionals more and more turned into symbolical acts, which were of great national significance. 
Of course, critical, artistical expression was an unwelcome subject during that time of political crisis. Especially the performance art had to suffer from political repressions. The performances of Konger Group resulted in a ban on performing in public for Artur Tajber. 
First Manifestation KONGER, with Marian Figiel, Artur Tajber, Właysław Kaźmierczak, in the Gallery Krzysztofory in Krakow, 1984, Image by Jacek Szmuc (on:

Soc Art Movement

The Soc Art movement is also known as Socialist Conceptualism, New Red Art or Second Socialist Realism. Their aim was to (re-)establish a new, political avant-garde. The artists of this movement (such as Anastazy Wiśniewski, Zofia Kulik (also known as part of the artist duo KwiekKulik with Przemysław Kwiek), Paweł Kwiek) critically replied to the new Communist regime. However, most of the artists belonged to the Communist Party. They sought to change the system from inside. Their main aim was the gap between real socialism and the (philosophical and theoretical) ideals Communism used to have. They sought a democratic form of Socialism, a "solidarity among working people". 
A return to the ideas, ideals and art of the time when Socialism established in East-Europe, seemed to be logical for the artists of the Soc Art movement. Social structures should develop from the bottom up, not the other way around, and an artists should play an fundamental part in these processes. However, politically engaged art had negative associations. In that time, art that was political was Socialist Realism, which means that it was art commissioned by the government. The difficulty for the Soc Art movement was to create socially and politically engaged art which differed from (official) Socialist Realism.  
In 1971 the artists wrote: 'To improve socialist society is to improve the ways people communicate with each other, improve their ability to cooperate and coexist with other members of the group. (...) The power which shapes them is not the state, but 'solidarity of proletariats'."

The artists received and used the new tendencies in Western countries; such as Minimalism, Concept Art, Happenings, Interactive Art etc.) and sought to combine these new artistical expression with political messages. Their work situates itself at the interface between private and public, includes subjective and biographical elements, and at the same times focuses on social changes.
A quote by Pawel Kwiek, one of the leading animators at the new established Film Form Workshop makes clear how they wanted to work. He sought to create an objective type of documentary film. His 1974 article Dokument "obiektywny o człowieku" / "An Objective Documentary about a Man" states:

"A documentary film's aim is to provide the truth about man. Both for the sake of Art as well as from a scientific point of view. So far, however, it has not been possible to prevent the distortion of the truth, which results from (the subjectivity of the creator). (...) We can conclude that the truth we receive from man is based on direct contact with him, regardless of what he would like to show himself or in what fashion he would like to be perceived. (...) This means that he will make a film about himself, in the sense that this will allow him, or her, to freely work on any topic."

All in all, they wanted to work with official organisations and not against the government, however, their work is critical and is situated in a dangerous position between resistance and cooperation.

Examples: The artists worked in public spaces. Especially useful for them were official state celebrations. During these celebrations they organised fluxus-like events and performed happenings, in order to activate the public, which usually stands in lines and watch the self-celebrations of the government. 
In 1971 they organized political spectacles (e.g. "Think Communism" by Z. Piotrowski and Zofia Kulik), workshops with students and art events for children and workers, structured by interactions, based on chance, improvised and spontaneous communication.

They often made use of Communist symbols, e.g. The Internationale song, Lenin's head, red flags, hammer and sickle... The Soc-artists' attempt at politicizing aesthetic constituted a third way: against autonomous modernist art on the one hand, and art aestheticising politics on the other. 
Of course, their work was rejected by official authorities and at the same time they were not accepted among (Anti-Communist) art circles.

Left: KwieKulik: Działania na głowę (trzy odsłony) (Action on the head - trhee views); 'Body, Performance' Galeria Labirynt, Lublin 1978
Right: KwieKulik Ptak z gipsu do brązu (Bird of plaster to bronze - from the the series Art Commentary),1975 

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